Patna meet: Unity in diversity or just a pipe dream?
Subhasish Mitra (Wide Angle)
With eyes set on the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, several opposition parties met at Patna and vowed to take on the BJP unitedly. Leaders of 15 opposition parties agreed on Friday to fight the general elections on a common platform against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
The parties, many of which are rivals at the regional level, and have been splintered at the national level, account for nearly half the 301 seats the BJP has in the 542-member Lok Sabha.
They have sought to sink their differences to challenge the BJP after Rahul Gandhi, leader of the main opposition Congress party, was convicted in a defamation case and disqualified from the Lok Sabha in March.
Their campaign got a boost in May when the Congress unseated the BJP in Karnataka Assembly elections. This victory assumed significance ahead of more state elections due later this year and national elections in April-May 2024. The Congress earlier managed to pull of an impressive win in Karnataka riding on the crest of an anti-incumbency wave in the hill state.
Although Modi remains popular and is widely expected to win a third term without much difficulty, opposition leaders say a joint campaign and straight, one-on-one constituency contests against the BJP could upset the saffron party's apple cart.
Political observers say that in the past too, opposition parties have formed alliances to challenge governments - led by both Congress and BJP - and won elections. But, they could not stick together for a long time and run the government smoothly.
Early signs of cracks appeared in the Patna event when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) stayed away from Friday's opposition news conference after participating in the meeting of leaders.
The AAP said in a statement that it would be difficult for it to be part of an alliance with the Congress if the grand old party did not support the AAP against a move by the the central government to clip the wings of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
While political observers point out that the AAP and the Congress are fierce rivals in Delhi and Punjab, BJP leaders said they were not worried as there was little hope for such alliances.
The fragility of opposition unity was driven home when Kejriwal took on the Congress for not extending their support to AAP over the Centre’s ordinance on Delhi civil services.
This was a broad hint for the Congress leadership that they should respect the turf of regional parties and not lay claim to seats in states where regional parties are strong.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah dubbed the Patna meeting as a "photo session".
Many believed that precious little was achieved at the Patna meeting except for an ‘agreement’ to meet again in Shimla on July 10 under the chairmanship of Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge.
Some parties are worried they will be viewed by voters as part of an ‘opportunistic alliance’, in the absence of a common minimum programme. Others say fighting elections unitedly on the basis of seat-sharing deals should be the foremost task before the election.
The Congress has already said they plan to field candidates on around 450 Lok Sabha seats, thus leaving the remaining 93 to other parties. And this is where the opposition’s bid to forge unity will come unstuck, benefiting the BJP.
Bihar Chief Minister and host of Patna meeting Nitish Kumar told Kharge that the next meeting should discuss the seat sharing formula conceived by the JD(U)-RJD combine.
Congress leaders admitted in private that the seat-sharing formula needs elaborate discussions and will need major tweaking to address the concerns of all the parties.
If things go well, the meeting could herald a new era of opposition unity, notwithstanding fault lines that are bound to happen on road to opposition unity. As of now, the moral of the story is there could be many a slip between the cup and the lip.